Frank Ramsey in 1921: Ramsey was friends with Keynes, supervised Wittgenstein’s PhD thesis and made breakthroughs in maths, economics and philosophy
Frank Ramsey: A Sister’s Memoir by Margaret Paul (Smith-Gordon, £20)
Frank Ramsey was 26 years old when he died after an operation at Guy’s Hospital in January 1930. In his short life, he had made lasting contributions to mathematics, economics and philosophy, and to the thinking of a number of his contemporaries, including Ludwig Wittgenstein.
When I taught at St Anne’s, Oxford during the 1980s, I was introduced by my colleague Gabriele Taylor to Ramsey’s sister, Margaret Paul, by then retired from teaching economics at Lady Margaret Hall college. As with anyone with some knowledge of the fields of enquiry Ramsey influenced, I was immediately recruited into helping with her research into his life and thought, though in a minor capacity; she had a formidable array of other helpers besides, from eminent philosophers like Taylor and PF Strawson onwards.
Frank Ramsey was 18 when Margaret was born, so her own memories of him were those of a little girl. A large part of her motivation in writing about him was to get to know him. In this quest she was equally tireless and scrupulous. Most aspects of his work require advanced technical competence, but she was determined to understand them; an afternoon at her house talking about him could be as gruelling as it was educative.
Her memoir has now been published. It is a remarkable book, a window not just into a prodigious mind—Ramsey translated Wittgenstein’s Tractatus as a second year Trinity undergraduate, simultaneously publishing original work in probability theory and economics—but into the amazingly rich intellectual world of his day. The book’s roll-call includes John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, GE Moore and Wittgenstein, and the mise-en-scène equals it: Ramsey’s father was president of Magdalene college at Cambridge, his famously bushy-eyebrowed brother, Michael, later became Archbishop of Canterbury, and Ramsey himself, after scholarships at Winchester and Trinity, became a fellow of King’s, aged 21.
Suffering unrequited love for a married woman drove Ramsey to Vienna to be psychoanalysed by one of Freud’s pupils. It was there that he met Wittgenstein, spending hours every day in conversation with him, and later helping Keynes to bring him back to Cambridge. In the last year of his life, the 26-year-old…